Struggle, Collective Action for Stress Relief

By James Anderson

Graduate students who work as Graduate Assistants are in a unique position insofar as they face both student-related and work-related pressures. They are thus likely to feel both student-related and work-related stress, especially around the end of the semester.

Whether working on or grading finals, final projects or end-of-the-semester assignments, GAs feel the heat during the cold two weeks of December before winter break.

But stress pervades graduate school and work generally.

A 2012 study in the journal Training and Education in Professional Psychology found that more than 70 percent of a sizable research sample of psychology graduate students reported experiencing a stressor that negatively impacted their optimal performance.

Researchers identified turning to friends, family and classmates as the three top coping strategies for stressed out students.

Activism does not appear to have been on the list, although perhaps it should have.

Malte Klar and Tim Kasser published a study in 2009 after surveys of college students, coupled with a national sampling of activists, showed collective action is positively correlated with higher levels of well-being and vitality. The results corroborated the researchers’ theory “that political activism is often intrinsically motivating and may reflect a fundamental human motivation,” and “that activists are more likely to experience the satisfaction of basic psychological needs, an indicator of more frequent experiences of intrinsic motivation.”

Yet, there remains cause for pause. Activism takes time. It demands energy. It can require use of money or resources.

The barriers to entry loom large. The funny thing about struggle, though, is that those barriers begin to dissolve emotionally and psychologically when well-being and affect improve as a result of just acting to overcome those obstacles.

Struggle likewise breaks down those barriers in ways that are quite concrete.

In the 2012 study of psychology grad students, researchers identified academic pressures and economic concerns as the two top grad school stressors.

Coincidentally, the top concerns for Graduate Assistants United as the union negotiates a new contract with the University are stipends and the related fees Graduate Assistants pay.

During bargaining, GAU is also addressing issues of GA workload and quality control over employment duties.

The reasons for doing so are straightforward. When asked to perform an inordinate amount of labor within the 10 or 20 hours of work per week on average a GA is contracted to do, stress mounts. Such added intensity above a reasonable level can force a GA to reduce the quality of her teaching, research or assistantship activities.

Coerced reduction in work quality is a matter of pedagogical integrity. It compounds stress by negatively impacting university experience, for everyone involved. Lack of work quality control can negatively impact a GA’s prospects for future employment when crucial opportunities for serious research and teaching are sacrificed without employee consent for the sake of saving the university money while maintaining a highly hierarchical and socially destructive division of labor.

GAU has also put the issue of a minimum credit hour requirement on the bargaining table. At Southern Illinois University Carbondale, the current contract requires an assistant to “be enrolled as a student for at least eight (8) graduate level credit hours,” during the fall and spring semesters, with an exception for doctoral candidates and master’s students in their last semester who are “only required to register for six (6) graduate level credit hours.”

In contrast, graduate employees at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have no minimum credit hour requirement in their contract.

Arguments insisting an eight or more credit hour stipulation is needed to ensure reasonable time to degree completion are suspect at best. All GAs would benefit from having the freedom to take on a heavy course load certain semesters and a lighter course load during others, and from being able to take classes over the summer to balance their course load out over the course of the year, avoiding super stressful semesters.

As it stands, some GAs at SIUC are forced to take an extra three credit hour course each semester in order to meet the credit hour requirements because one or two credit hour independent studies are unavailable. Those facing such a problem, and GAs with other obligations aside from their assistantship and school work – like the GA with sick parents or siblings to care for, or the single parent with several children pursuing a degree while working as an assistant – would also benefit from having the choice to enroll in fewer credit hours per semester without sacrificing assistantship eligibility.

Union activism is a potent method for biting into the above stressors by building an organization and securing a legally-binding contract with teeth.

Organizing Literally Saves Lives

A report from the Economic Policy Institute in 2012 found that in addition to improving wages for both union and non-union workers, a “sweeping advantage for unionized workers is in fringe benefits,” and workplace protections that improve well-being.

Evidence suggests the findings in the report remain true beyond our borders.

Patrick Ackermann, a union leader with the Solidaires Unitaires Démocratiques in France, helped create L’Observatoire du stress et des mobilités forcées (the Observatory of Stress and Forced Mobility) to address issues at Orange S.A., formerly France Télécom, a multinational telecommunications company where restructuring and intimidation by bosses led to an epidemic of worker suicides.

Bosses tried to individualize the causes when workers kept killing themselves, but suicide notes left by employees explicitly blamed what was taking place in the company. The changes that ruined and ultimately took some workers’ lives – tantamount to what one engineer who committed suicide called “management by terror” – included bosses accosting employees by email and managers making subordinates undergo humiliating interviews in front of people.

As Ackermann told Sara Waters at Jacobin, since 80 percent of the workers legally could not be fired because of their special status as fonctionnaires, “management resorted to more insidious psychological tactics to force them to leave the company,” and “engaged in what might be described as terror tactics that targeted individuals by every means possible.”

Because the issue is not easily communicable “within the conventional language and symbolism of trade-union militancy,” Ackermann said, some saw suicides as only personal problems “that had nothing to do with union activism,” but the union still took action. They negotiated a new agreement in 2010 that protected workers from excessive workplace pressures and undue stress on the job.

Enforcement of the contract proved difficult, so activists supplemented this with the syndicalist-style Observatory of Stress and Forced Mobility, which documents worker suicides and reaches out to major media to publicize the problem, putting pressure back on the employer to stop harassment.

Beating Bullies, Stressing the System through Transformative Struggle

The notions that suicides are more common during the holiday season is a myth, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, but the oft-overlooked conditions underlying suicides and other less serious workplace stressors still deserve our attention now.

Bullying in academia increases stress, and not just at the end of the semester. An employee at one university for 14 years said being the victim of constant bullying “totally destroyed” her sense of self-worth.

The amount of administrative work has been increasingly passed down since academics seldom have personal secretaries anymore and faculty cuts continue. Departmental secretaries have thus had to take on the extra burden, an article notes. Similarly, GAs have experienced additional work expectations and probably the bullying that tends to come with it.

One union, Unison, has commissioned research into bullying within academia. Elaborating on the increasingly “competitive and hierarchical” environment of higher education and discussing possibilities for recovering “the more collegial culture” that appears lost, Sam Farley and Christine Sprigg note that contacting a union representative when bullying persists is a good first start.

Wellness promotion and stress relief by way of politicized action of course comes in other forms.

Movements for free education, on display in the march against the marketization of higher education that filled the streets of London on November 19, are afoot in more than one country. The recent occupation of the Humanities and Social Sciences building at the University of California Santa Cruz – an action supported by Cornel West and initiated after the UC Board of Regents approved another tuition hike – illustrates another outlet for putting stress on the institution to end systemic exploitation.

All these kinds of collective action suggest different ways of alleviating stress through struggle in the short term, while probably benefiting collective well-being over the longue durée.


James Anderson is a doctoral candidate and a member of the GAU Communications Committee.  He has served as steward for the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts, and as co-chair for the Legislative and Political Action Committee. His interests include social movements, alternative media, critical theory, prefigurative politics, horizontalidad, political economy and praxis.



Tonight, (Wednesday, November 19) Happy Hour from 8-10pm at Tres Hombres


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SIU Interim Chancellor Paul Sarvela Dies

The unexpected passing of Interim SIU Chancellor, Paul Sarvela, is cause for a moment of reflection by the university’s faculty, staff, and students.  While not interacting directly with Dr. Sarvela, the leadership of Graduate Assistants United (IEA/NEA) had voiced optimism in his appointment and were looking forward to a constructive, fruitful relationship.


During times of sudden loss, those with honorable intentions often struggle in finding the right words to convey condolences to the family and close friends of an individual taken at such a young age.  The Executive Committee of GAU along with our members wish to express our collective desire for strength and comfort to Dr. Sarvela’s family and those who knew him.


Bob Velez
President, Graduate Assistants United